Monday, August 20, 2012

What's a Layman to do?

I am often astonished and greatly grieved to hear stories of people being told, whether by another lay person, or by some clergy or other religious, that they ought not to pray the Jesus Prayer because they don't have a spiritual guide. Or that the practice of hesychasm associated with the Jesus Prayer is not a spirituality meant for lay people, but only for monks and nuns - and even then often only for a select few. Such comments irk me not only because they are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the great Fathers and mystics of both the East and the West, but also because they are in direct contradiction to the teachings of Scripture. Do not the Scriptures encourage us to fix our minds on the Lord, to meditate on His Word day and not, to "pray without ceasing?" The Scriptures make no distinction here between who it is that ought to be praying ceaselessly; they just issue the general command, which implies that all of us who truly believe on God's Word are called to pray without ceasing.

Jesus Himself encouraged us to evoke His name, particularly when making requests from our loving "Abba," our Heavenly Father. And there are numerous references of people in the Scriptures invoking the name of God in times of distress, need, temptation, or what have you. Who among us is not almost constantly in some form of temptation? Doesn't it make sense for all believing Christians to continually call on the name of God - the name which is above every other name - as the most powerful weapon against temptation? I can't comprehend why anyone, priest, religious, lay, or otherwise, would discourage pious people from praying the name of Jesus, whether it be a simple and humble invoking of His name, or the full "Jesus Prayer." What better weapon have we in our day-to-day lives to continually call forth God's presence within us?

In his excellent little work On the Prayer of Jesus, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov sternly reprehends those clergy who discourage the laity from praying the Jesus Prayer and practicing hesychasm. Such prayer, he says, is for all the Church because we have no mightier weapon against our enemy than the holy name of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Both he, St. Theophan the Recluse, and St. Basil of Poiana Marului (spiritual father to St. Paisius Velichkovsky) go so far as to refer to those who discourage such a practice as fools who have fallen into spiritual delusion!

A more "moderate" approach to this problem says that lay people can certainly practice the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm, but only under the guidance of an experienced elder or spiritual father/mother. But this again flies in the face of what the great mystics of past ages have told us in the writings they left behind. The spiritual fathers and mothers of the past (at least so far as I have been able to discover) are in complete agreement that the in an ideal world the practice of the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm would take place under the guidance of an experienced elder. However, these same mystics recognize quite openly that we do not live in an ideal world! Even during periods that we today consider "golden ages" of the Church, the saints of those ages bemoaned the lack of experienced spiritual guides. They speak of the general hunger among the laity of the Church for a deeper spiritual life, a more intimate communion with God the Trinity, but in the next breath they acknowledge the fact that scarcely one or two people per generation really have the experience necessary to guide folks on their spiritual journey.

So what do these saints suggest? Well, they suggest everything I've been suggesting here: READ THE WRITINGS OF THE SPIRITUAL ELDERS OF THE PAST, search the Scriptures, associate with other spiritually-minded people who are also seeking a deeper relationship with God, attend the Church services regularly, go to confession frequently (which reminds me, I'm about due), receive Communion as frequently as possible. Above all, they recommend maintaining a humble disposition. St. Basil of Poiana Marului emphasizes this particularly. While it is certainly possible that we may have mystical experiences during our prayer, that is not the goal of our prayer life, and in fact such experiences are generally reserved for a select few. Not even all the great mystics of the Church (East or West) had such deep mystical experiences. We should approach prayer humbly, not expecting to reach the heights of contemplation in this life, but working towards such contemplation with hope nonetheless.

With regards to those who fear spiritual delusion if anyone attempts to practice the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm without a spiritual father/mother, I again refer you to St. Basil's excellent little series of "introductions" to some of the Fathers of the Philokalia. The Fathers of the Philokalia, he says, speak of the dangers of delusion not to discourage us from practicing the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm, but so that when such temptations arise we might have ample warning and sound teaching for combating delusion. Again this is why it is necessary for us to search both the Scriptures and the writings of the great mystics, particularly in times where spiritual elders are so few and far between. These writings warn us of the dangers of the spiritual life in order that we might avoid those dangers, not in order that we might excuse ourselves from entering ever more deeply into the spiritual life.

In all of this, the spirit of humility and child-like simplicity are our greatest defenses against delusion. Personally I believe the greatest mystics of the Church are not those who left behind volumes of writings to guide us through the spiritual life. Rather, I believe that the Church's greatest mystics are those who held simple and child-like relationships with our Heavenly Father. The man in the village of Ars during the time of St. John Vianney who simply sat in Church looking at God in the Eucharist while God looked back at him; the illiterate woman in a third-world country who, despite the fact that she lived a hundred miles from the nearest Catholic Church, was still the light of Christ in her otherwise non-Christian village; the farmer who has little to no time for reading books, but prays the whole time he goes about his daily tasks, performing all for the love of God and giving abundantly to others of the blessings that God showers upon him; the simple housewife who lovingly performs the hum-drum household tasks of her family out of love both for them and for God; or the worker in the secular world who, day in and day out, strives to be the light of Christ shining in an otherwise darkened world - these people, I believe, leave behind the greatest testament to the spiritual life. No amount of "book learnin'" can take the place of the witness that these people give us. So in the absence of spiritual elders, we must look to one another. We're all in this together, after all.

May heaven consume us!


  1. Replies
    1. Hahahahaha!!! Yeah, thanks for the inspiration, Clara. In fact, I've had other people approach me with the same problem you mentioned yesterday - hence this posting. :)

  2. This post, spoke to me. I just had a quick discussion on the Jesus Prayer, with an Orthodox friend of mine (ROCOR/OCA), saying the same things you bring to light (needing a spiritual father). Although, I'm awaiting the book I ordered, on it - the one you referenced me, written by an Eastern Monk. It kind of discouraged me from praying it. Then again, understanding the Orthodox perspective regarding contemplative praying puts prayer, and praying something like the Jesus prayer in a different light, for me.